Saturday, December 29, 2007

28th Dec 07 - Enchanted

It’s Christmas, the season of eating more food than necessary, doing sod all, and watching guilty pleasures at the cinema. And so, with nary a glimmer of self consciousness, I strode into a toddler-filled cinema with my adult friends to watch a Disney film. It’s what all the cool kids do. I’m almost positive.

Enchanted is just what a post-Christmas afternoon needs. Easy on the eye, simple to understand, quietly charming and occasionally amusing. An experience akin to playing Junior Pictionary with Orlando Bloom. Listen with a fraction of a brain cell as he explains the rules in a big, clear voice. Gaze at his curly hair flopping over his simple face. Chuckle as he accidentally eats one of the crayons. It’s what Christmas is all about.

Anyway, Enchanted sees the story of Giselle, a typical Disney princess who lives in a wood, is friends with animals, likes to sing and falls in love with a big bland prince. But the prince’s evil stepmother chucks Giselle into a magic well (bear with me..) and sees her emerge into “a world without a happily ever after”. That’d be our world, then. Poor Giselle is transformed into a real person and plonked into New York (oh look, New York as the setting for a film! Wow, what a pleasant change) where people don’t really like each other, don’t break into song and certainly don’t believe in happy endings or true love. A bit bleak for the tots, but it’s good to expose them to the reality of life. That’s Robert’s philosophy too, as a divorce lawyer who’s also a single parent. He ends up taking Giselle in until her “prince” will come to save her, and your typical fish-out-of-water hilarity ensues.

Rather than poke blatant fun at Disney clichés ala Shrek, this film embraces them and gives them a little twist. So Giselle’s wildlife friends are distinctly more urban in her new world, and when a musical number breaks out, Robert questions how it’s possible that everyone can know the words to the song. But there are no big winks to the adults - this is a predominantly child-friendly film, and much more rooted in the genre than the more grown-up flavours of Ratatouille, or the dummed-down science of last week’s aggravating Golden Compass. The animated segments are cheapo bargain-bin quality and lack real humour so prove a little tough to sit through, but it’s the performance of Amy Adams’ Giselle that’ll win you over in the real world. Wide-eyed, wide-smiled, with a child-like innocence and yet conflicting emotional core, it’s easy to see how the lovely Patrick Dempsey’s Robert could fall for her. James Marsden also strikes gold, swapping his yawn-fest performance as Cyclops for the hammiest prince in the land.

There’s some refreshing thoughts dealt with in what is essentially a child’s rom-com. Robert says you can’t fall in love straight away, but he falls for Giselle - true love does exist afterall! Hurray! But, Giselle had originally fallen for her prince. Can she just write that off and say this new love is now the real-deal? What happens with the next dashing man she meets? I think Robert needs to seriously sit down and consider the ramifications of his relationship, not to mention the hurt it will have caused his weird-jawed girlfriend of five years. Did those five years mean nothing to him? Can he just flush them all away for a mentally-challenged homeless person who wandered into his house?

Ok, maybe I’m looking too deeply into this, and I may have just trampled over the entire sentiment of the film. But hey - it still made me smile, I had one of the songs stuck in my head for a day and any film showing Patrick Dempsey in a half-open bath robe is a winner in my book. Sweet, silly and uplifting (if you don’t dissect it to pieces) there’s no doubt this is a pure kiddy film through and through. But if you’re after an Orlando-Pictionary moment, and don’t have access to either, then this is a great alternative for a lazy afternoon. Enchanted notches up a CF0, but imagine the rating all pink and fluffy and tasting like sugar. Seriously.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

19th December 2007 - The Golden Compass

Back in July I watched the stagnant interlude that was Harry Potter number who-cares, and said as far as children’s book adaptations go, I was much more interested in “a little girl called Lyra and her big fuck-off armoured bear”. Well here comes said girl and bear, in the adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, a trio of deliciously dark novels with an abundance of imagination and a fantastic way of sticking a middle finger up to all ruling religions.

Naturally I was quite excited to see Pullman’s work on the big screen, but as the release date approached and stories emerged of a “toned down” content and “made for kids” vibe I started to get wary. Though dubbed a child’s book, The Amber Spyglass (changed to “The Golden Compass” for film as thickos wouldn’t know what a spyglass was) deals with complex ideas, violence and some nasty occurrences - a staple of any good story in my eyes. Unfortunately, some idiot made the decision to aim this film squarely at the tots, following in Narnia’s footsteps and ignoring the vastly superb example set by Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

So we’re left with “theology on Sesame Street”, with every subtle symbol explained VERY SIMPLY, with ickle words and puppets (ok, not the last part). I half expected them to announce “this scene is brought to you by the letter ‘D’, the number six, and a thinly veiled attack on the Catholic church." Granted, the film doesn’t have the luxury of a few hundred pages to gradually introduce themes and encourage interpretation, but it doesn’t half feel lazy to explain every little thing via voiceover, diagram or handy character monologue. The kids wouldn’t get what it was about if it didn’t explain everything. But, let’s be honest. Who cares? I’m an adult, make this film for me, and if the kids don’t get it - fuck ‘em. They won’t remember tomorrow anyway, with their little under-developed brains.

I’m veering toward a Simpsons-style review again, so let’s get back to the film. Dumbed-down aside, the majority of this film is pretty good. The effects are superb, especially on the demons (they are the SOULS of PEOPLE as this is an ALTERNATIVE UNIVERSE) and big ol’ Iroek, the armoured bear, is pretty ace. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards does a stirling job as Lyra, capturing her defiance and confidence without being a brat. Nicole Kidman is fantastic as creepy lady Mrs Coulter, playing the role almost pantomime style, but stealing the scenes she’s in, even when her creepy little monkey is on her shoulder. And Daniel Craig is as brief as his character in the book, but a welcome addition to any screen as far as I’m concerned.

But the film’s biggest flaw is in trying to achieve a coherent story from a complicated book in less than two hours. Jackson made films that last for bloody days, but he gets the story in, paces it, and we can all handle it fine. Director and screenwriter Chris Weitz slices out any real character interaction, leaving a trail of events that probably don’t make any sense to a non-reader. Up to the end I was enjoying the film in an average sort of way, but then they did something utterly ridiculous. Those who’ve already read the book will know the ending is dark, pretty shocking, and sets things up for the second book nicely. That ending doesn’t happen in this film. Skip a few pages back and stop right there. Just before the real darkness begins. Just as things are all happy-happy. Just as not very much has been concluded yet. It’s a pathetic ending to the film, a wimpish “ooo don’t upset the kiddies” cop-op, and I was nearly as outraged as I was at the end of Pirates Two - and that’s saying something.

Golden Compass would’ve got a CF1 for doing a reasonably good job of bringing a brilliant book on screen. But by pandering to children and ignoring the book’s stronger points, it drops down a point, just clinging to a CF0. Read the book. Watch the film. Be disappointed. I hope you’re happy, children. I hope you’re bloody happy.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

8th Dec 07 - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Critics have swooned over our Jesse and his chums, so to up the ante I went to see this during the afternoon while tired and recovering from a “couple” of drinks the night before. The last time I watched a film in this state was Lost in Translation, which succeeding in matching my soft-focussed, languid view of the world and had a similar effect as staring at a lava lamp for a few hours (having re-watched it when fresh and awake it soon transpired that the lava lamp would have more depth and less pretension.)

Anyway, this is the story of Jesse James, famous wild west train robber who was assassinated (oops - there’s a spoiler) by Robert Ford. The plot follows Jesse in his last year, and the ins and outs of his unstable relations with a bunch of his robbing friends, including Bob Ford. Although it may be dubbed a ‘western’, this is more a simmering character study, both on Jesse himself - a crumbling man made infamous by his exploits - and Robert Ford - the “coward” who helps Jesse kick the bucket.

Brad Pitt sails through as Jesse. It’s not particularly difficult for him to play a charismatic lead with a twitchy temper, and though he does the job well, he fades into the background when Casey Affleck appears as Ford. Creepy, vulnerable, desperate and greedy, Affleck gives several shades to Ford, promoting sympathy and revulsion all at the same time. If I was big bro Ben I’d probably be jealous, although Casey has slightly weird teeth. There’s something for you to cling on to, Ben.

The film is directed by Andrew Dominik, whose previous film is the superb Chopper, which regular readers with massive brains may remember managed to encroach on to the Little Fish review last year (because Chopper wowed and Little Fish sunk). Dominik chooses a bit of weird way to go about things, though, starting the film with gorgeous cinematography, moody lighting, framing each shot carefully, having Jesse stand with coat billowing in reflected steam during a train robbery scene full of style and danger. Great. But as the film moves on such devices are completely forgotten about, like all the great ideas ran out, or Dominik got too involved with characters and less involved with how he was showing the story.

A healthy mix of the two styles may have made the film feel more balanced, instead of a slightly disjointed feel that confused the direction of the plot. What is this film about? Jesse James? Robert Ford? The complex interaction between the whole gang and resulting mistrust and backstabbing? The odd effect of fame? Perhaps a second watch with a clear head might make things a bit more focussed, but for now it doesn’t feel completely cohesive.

However, the presence of Affleck and to a lesser extent Pitt, the periods of more inventive direction, and the strength of the story itself all mean this is still a rewarding film with plenty to ponder, especially the bizarre way a murdering thief is heralded as an American “hero”. Perhaps not as super as expected, but still worthy of more than a banal recommendation, Jesse James gets a CF2. Not long left in the year, and not one single CF5-rated film. Poor show, 2007. Poor show.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

28th Nov 07 - The Darjeeling Limited

It seems that as Christmas steadily approaches, it brings with it not just an increase in tat on the shelves, a decrease in bank balances, runny noses, stresses and other such fun, but also a steady trickle of good films. Imagine! Good films! The autumn season is always a bit dry, with the dregs of summer blockbusters left and the Oscar contenders holding back to emerge at a time that’ll better their chances. But as winter kicks in a few goodies start coming back out of the woodwork, clawing their way at the Cinemafool Top 10 (which is shaping up nicely, by the way, but some battles still to be had in the last month of the year). Last year Pan’s Labyrinth and Stranger Than Fiction impressed as 2006 closed down, and this time around we’ve already had Eastern Promises wedging a lovely Viggo into our midst. And now The Darjeeling Limited.

Yup, Darjeeling is one of those films that had me smiling throughout the bulk of it, which is pretty impressive as my natural facial expression is that of contempt, or occasional horror (see Pirates…) It’s a Wes Anderson film, whose previous flicks include Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and 2005’s The Life Aquatic. Wes’s films tend to meander plot-wise, feature Bill Murray, have ace soundtracks, and often leave you wondering if you enjoyed it or not.

Wes likes to feature actors with slightly weird faces, and have lots of close up shots of them, then shots of them walking in slow-motion to a cool song, preferably with all characters in formation, one behind the other. It looks good, you see. He also likes to have plots that you can’t really summarise. Take Darjeeling. Essentially it’s about three brothers on a train in India. If I tried to explain it anymore I’d spoil its occasional twists and turns, and would run out of space for this review (which, granted, has already been taken up by lots of unrelated waffle anyway, although good waffle none-the-less. There was some more.) Wes also has a weird knack of making a 90 minute film feel like it’s been on for a ga-jillion hours.

All of the above makes it sound like I dislike his films. I don’t, but I am wary when approaching them. Darjeeling features all of Wes’s usual traits, but the reason for my almost constant smile is down to three little words. Owen, Jason and Adrien. That’d be Wilson, Schwartzman and Brody. As the three leads these guys are just pure brilliance, and putting them together as squabbling, peculiar brothers was a genius move. Owen’s character is overly organised, bossy and a bit anal, although impressed me with his travel planning. As any of my travelling companions know, I like to plan things out, preferably with spreadsheets. Owen has laminated itineraries. Laminated! A great idea, and one which I might implement in my forth-coming January trip.

Jason Schwartzman plays a sombre writer with impulsive behaviour and lady problems, while Adrian Brody is the tall, slightly broody and emotional sibling. All three have amazing noses (see previous comment on Wes liking weird faces) and gel together so well on screen you can easily see them as brothers. The film wavers in tone between comedic and melancholic, with a few unexpected flashes of excitement, and some giggly moments of fun that makes the whole thing a pleasure to observe.

My only gripe, aside from a reasonably pointless short film used as an opener (watch out for Natalie Portman’s ribs - seriously disturbing) is the ga-jillion hour factor, with the film seemingly coming to an end but then motoring on for another few hours (or maybe twenty minutes or so). It was just enough to make my smile fade, and enough to drop Darjeeling down a point - but to say that it still stands at CF3 should suggest how much I was enjoying this film. The Darjeeling Limited is oddball, quirky, and any other clichéd adjective you want to throw in there to describe a film that’s different to the norm. But it’s certainly worth watching. So watch it.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

14th Nov 07 - Eastern Promises

As Brick was to last week’s The Lookout, a History of Violence is to this week’s Eastern Promises, namely a film wowing mostly down to the utter coolness and confidence of its lead actor. Last week was Levitt, this week it’s Mortenson, a man so effortlessly, silently cool it’s simply flabbergasting. Plus his first name’s Viggo, which isn’t really a name, is it? He’s just so damn cool.

But rather than gush about the lead actor yet again, I’ll go for a different tack. Eastern Promises is David Cronenburg’s follow-up to a 2005 CF Top-10 rated A History of Violence, still keeping the violence jarringly mixed with simple family life, but this time plonking it in London alongside some Russian gangsters. It’s a disturbing world, made more disturbing when you read how much research went into the film and what had to be left out as it may have been “too much”. What’s left in is murder, theft and horrific treatment of women. Oh and that violence thing that Cronenberg does so well.

The story follows Viggo as a driver/minder to Vincent Cassel’s unruly son-of-big-boss, played by crag-faced Armin Mueller-Stahl. Their paths cross with midwife Naomi Watts but to go further into the plot would probably spoil it (as an idiot managed to do for my companion in a thoughtless toilet conversation. Seriously - the worst place to talk about the ending of a film is in the toilet of the cinema. I bet they answered their mobile halfway through the film, too.)

Anyway, at a sprightly 100 minutes, Promises is surprisingly laid-back in pace, taking the time to build characters and finger twisting tension. In typical Cronenburg style, the violence is sporadic but gruesomely effective. Shove your gorno Saw-trite up your arse, this is raw, powerful and, if the less desensitised could watch between their fingers, amazingly shot effects-wise. The stand-out scene in the sauna will stay with you, and kicks the likes of Bourne and Bond right back into fictional la-la-land. Perhaps having a sweaty, naked Viggo makes the scene easier to watch..

Here I go back to my gushing, for Viggo certainly astonishes, with his apparent grasp of Russian (well it sounds pretty good, anyway) and physical presence stealing every scene. Plus the guy’s got a cleft in his chin - a proven sign of genius. The rest of the cast are still strong, and for a film set in London there’s not a single shot of the Eye, possibly a first for the year and a great way not to annoy me.

But Promises isn’t getting the sought-after CF5 rating, so there must be some quibble somewhere. Perhaps the plot could have stretched itself into something even deeper. Perhaps more delving could have gone into Viggo’s fascinating character. Perhaps a less clichéd view of a “gangster family” could have been portrayed (instead of quiet elderly front-man, with lots of food and family parties and piped ’culture-specific’ music). Perhaps Naomi Watts should have stopped wearing those ridiculous goggles on her bike.

Well. This is still a powerful film, with ace performances, a memory-stamping fight scene, some unexpected twirls in the plot and, did I mention, a naked, sweaty Viggo? I feel strongly enough for Eastern Promises to punch through the recent CF2 barrier, making a smashing CF3. Perhaps there’s time for the last stragglers of the year to follow it through? Let’s see…

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

7th Nov 07 - The Lookout

Last year Brick scrabbled its way on to the acclaimed (by me) Cinemafool top 10, mostly on the merits of its lead actor, Joseph Gordon Levitt (the kid out of Third Rock from the Sun). At the time I said he was one to watch, so here I am watching him again, in a bizarrely empty cinema (probably down to a football match, but that doesn’t explain where all the other people were who have any semblance of intelligence.) Anyway, Levitt takes the lead in The Lookout, written and directed by newbie Scott Frank, and as he nailed moody cool in Brick, here he bangs confused frustration right on the head. See, I made that comment because Levitt’s character Chris is involved in a frightful accident and has severe head trauma. See what I did there? Clever, I know.

So poor Chris battles with memory issues, sequencing problems and an ill-timed lack of restraint. He’s gone from being super star hockey player to bumbling around, cleaning floors in a bank and living with a blind dude (Jeff Daniels - recreating The Dude). Naturally he’s not too happy a chappy. So when smooth talker Gary appears with an offer of friendship, it’s no wonder Chris lets his guard down. Could be a nice buddy-movie, but Gary is sort of after robbing a bank, and spies Chris’s current employment mixed with head-issues a perfect opportunity. Naughty Gary.

Despite the underlying bank robbery / head trauma dramas, The Lookout is a remarkably composed piece of work, ignoring a wow-bang impulse (possibly budget related) and instead going Fargo style, with slightly eccentric villains, a dysfunctional collection of heroes and lots of cold settings. Focus is largely on how Chris copes with life, with a slip into straight robbery-gone-wrong territory just towards the end. It makes for a neat little indie film, and feels like a refreshing walk in the cold outdoors compared to recent “issues-heavy” stodge.

Levitt doesn’t disappoint, still with a very cool exterior but also an essential underbelly of anger, guilt and your basic frustration. I can’t put my finger on why I like Levitt so much - as an actor he just seems completely in control but without that knowing glint folk like Mr Clooney often display (the “check me out ladies, I’m acting” look). Anyway, I’ll stop harping on about Levitt. He’s flanked by a very smooth Matthew Goode and a comedy injection of Daniels as Chris’s roomie.

On the negative, the film stinks of having been written by a guy, the only female characters being insipid, idiotic and actual lap-dancers. They are so insignificant to the plot, despite offering whiffs of interesting character development, that they fade away before the finale, never to be remembered. I’m not saying that all films written by women portray men fairly either - mostly they portray them as dashing and charming, which is of course a barefaced lie created to appease unhappy single women, which is flawed as it’ll only make them worse by giving false hope.

Um, where was I? Oh yes - The Lookout. Good, solid first for the director and another cracking performance from Levitt. Good enough to climb to a CF2, but lacking a little bit of oomph to get past that now tricky CF2 barrier.

On a side note, I watched Them this weekend, a French horror that was originally released in January. If you want to genuinely poop your pants, I would highly recommend, especially if you watch it when you’re home alone. Mind, Joseph Gordon Levitt isn’t in it, but don’t let that put you off.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

31st Oct 07 - Rendition

You may remember a few weeks ago I reviewed Clooney vehicle Michael Clayton, which involved a few groans at the preceding trailers that hinted at films full of that deep American guilt about terror wars et al. Well, Rendition was one of those films, the big guilt-factor being that fun new rule where suspected “terror” people can be magically whisked away to an off-shore “interrogation” area without a drop of paper signage or any of that other stuff that brings some semblance of order to the world. We all know Bad Things have been happening, even people like me who try not to read the papers anymore due to the warped nature of all media nowadays (except this, loyal readers. No warping of facts here. Just blunt, ill-educated yet pretentiously-presented opinions.)

Anyhoo, Rendition’s plot spine is the abduction - sorry, “interception” - of Omar Metwally, and the impact of this event on a whole fistful of people, from a rather gaunt looking Reece Witherspoon (the wife who wonders where the hell her hubbie’s gone) to lovely Jake Gyllenhaal experiencing his first time as an American “interrogator”, to interrogator Abasi and his battle to keep his daughter Fatima under control and avoid assassination, to Fatima’s boyfriend and his friends who have an unsettling knack of convincing people to blow themselves up. Peripheral to all this is Reece’s lawyer friend (Peter Sarsgaard) probing where his career suggests he shouldn’t, and head of the interceptors Meryl Streep, whose decision it is to ‘intercept’ Omar in the first place.

A heck of a lot going on, then, and an impressive handling of the multiple plot strands, each major character getting their turn, and each story just as riveting as the next. Will Reece get any answers? Is her husband guilty? Can Jake take the pressure of this kind of interrogation? Will Abasi find his daughter? And will the boyfriend be convinced to do something pretty stupid? You will want to watch to find out, and there are some craftily unexpected direction-changes to spice things up a bit. Couple that with an excellent cast, a good moral-testing concept (the torturers claiming to have saved hundreds by extracting information in such a way - but the success rate suggesting many innocents have also been questioned) and lovely Jake (superb as ever) and you’re on to a winner.

Or are you? For this multi-stranded flick has a bold angle, but a few niggling faults. Meryl Streep’s character is, like Tilda Swinton’s in Michael Clayton, a Token Bad Old Woman in Charge. A role we’ve seen her play many times over. Not a shimmer of humanity flickers behind her icy stare. She represents “the Man” - soulless, uncompromising. Even when she defends her actions she does it with a little pitchfork behind her ear (honest). It’s unashamedly lazy characterisation and is an annoying reminder that this could just be one of those Hollywood films pretending to be big and important when actually they’re bland early Saturday evening fillers.

The multi-plot tactic is also a little unstable. It’s a little like having a tray full of peas and spending an hour and a half carefully balancing all the peas on the tray, making sure each pea is nice and stable. Then in the last half hour suddenly ignoring a few of the peripheral peas and letting them fall off, then eventually just tossing the whole tray in the air and going to make yourself a cup of tea.

But despite the peas and token Evil Head Woman factor, this is still a tight, enjoyable film with some good issues and a great cast. Gripping, but leaving less of an impression than it probably should have, Rendition hops in with a CF1, missing out on higher marks because I can barely remember what happened (never a good sign) except for the bits with lovely Jake in. Oh he’s so lovely. Sorry - I’ll stop.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

24th Oct 07 - The Counterfeiters

This week’s film is a heart-warming family tale about cheeky chappy Salomon, who gets his wrists slapped for counterfeiting documents and money, and because of those pesky Nazis he’s sent to a concentration camp where he’s picked on to do a “special” project - with hilarious results!

Oh ok, maybe not quite the synopsis to match the film, but had I described it straight I would have probably had a negative impact on the emotional state of my ever-growing number of readers (let’s aim for over 5 by 2009). Yet for a German film set during the end of the Second World War and largely featuring life in a concentration camp, which let’s face it is as gloomy as hell on a biscuit, Counterfeiters starts off like a homage to Casino Royale. Stylishly suited and ruggedly handsome, Salomon (Karl Markovics) plays poker while eyeing up high-class totty, who he then ravages in his beautiful hotel suite in Monaco. It’s only when we’re taken back to see Salomon’s past that the gloom starts to threaten.

But even so, Salomon’s time in camp doesn’t look all that bad. He’s set on a special project to counterfeit money for the Nazis, and his little project team are treated pretty well, all things considered. They have nice beds, occasional treats, food and showers – they’re even allowed music. It almost looks like fun if, you know, they weren’t threatened with death if they didn’t do as they were told. And, well, weren’t in a concentration camp.

The film focuses in on the battle of conscience within Salomon’s team – they’re essentially helping the Nazi party and gaining a cushy lifestyle in return, compared to their comrades in neighbouring cells who are unthinkably suffering. But if they don’t do as they’re told, they’ll be killed. Salomon reasons that to survive you “must adapt”, but the price he pays is etched across his face. This is all mirrored nicely with a Nazi guard who doesn’t really share their views, but what else can he do? So there’s lots of weighty moral issues to digest and some powerful scenes, particularly when Salomon faces the less fortunate inmates.

There are lots of familiar prison-type scenes that dampen The Counterfeiters’ originality, and the use of a flashback structure means you never really worry for Salomon’s safety. But still, this is a fresh angle to approach a well-paved subject area, and the acting matches the fascinating character studies. Not as heavy as the synopsis might suggest, but still weighty enough to leave you a little exhausted by the end, The Counterfeiters gains a CF1.

Monday, October 22, 2007

17th Oct 07 - Ratatouille

When Brad Bird last teamed up with Pixar the result was The Incredibles, a brilliant take on the super-hero genre that made kiddie films more grown-up and, like, “real” entertainment. Bird’s second collaboration with them-what-draw-with-computers is just as good, though the subject couldn’t be more different.

Ratatouille sees Remy, a rat with an impeccable sense of smell and taste, which leads him to pursue culinary greatness via Linguini, a hapless kitchen-hand who’s willing to learn from his whiskered friend. As far as concepts go, it’s pretty much kiddy-friendly. Nonsense, really. So the fact that Brad Bird manages to get us fully grown, uber-educated, very highly mentally developed adults to actually care about Remy succeeding, proves just how great a force the Bird/Pixar combo is.

The winning formula seems to lie in the tone. It’s remarkably grown-up, despite the subject matter. There’s no brash childish tosh, and no wink-wink in-jokes for the disgruntled parents. The story’s delivered straight up, with some fun chase sequences, slap-stick moments and dancing rats to keep the tots (and grown-ups) amused, and some fabulous caricatures (the food critic marvellously vilified) and smart undertones for the adult folk. Remy wants to be himself and aim higher, but his pa informs him that the ‘lower’ rats can never progress, kept in place by fear created by the ‘higher’ humans. My stupid analytical nature could have a field day, but I’ll shut it up for now.

Instead you can sit back and enjoy a solid piece of film-making, where story resides over the need to make stuff look good. Not that it doesn’t look good - great in fact, and at times flabbergasting when you see flawless bustling city streets and swirling sewer tunnels, and remember this is an animated world. They even managed to make street rats look endearing. Especially when they’re whipping up an omelette.

There are a few niggling holes, though. It’s certainly funny, but still not close to the sheer hilarity of the Toy Story duo (yet to be beaten, in my opinion). The running time is a shade over-long for the contents, yet several characters drop off the edge of the plot into nothingness. The very American portrayal of France (a choice of American accents or mega-French) can grate a little. And if I want to be completely pedantic, there is only one female character, portrayed as a bit of an angry cow until she’s softened up by a guy who would never in a million years be able to get her in real life.

But here’s me talking about ‘real life’ when this is a cartoon about rodents that can cook (as my International companion described it). And this brings me back to Bird’s success - I’m treating Ratatouille as a proper film, not just some kid’s film I guiltily saw (like I might with Enchanted…) Thoroughly entertaining, beautifully animated and the closest I’ll be to having interest in watching cookery on screen, Ratatouille easily sinks a CF2, just missing out on a 3 for the reasons outlined above. Watch out for the short animation beforehand too - a nugget of fun before the main event. I’m hungry now - where’s a rat when you need one?

Monday, October 15, 2007

10th Oct 07 - Control

The critics were crawling over themselves to get their labels of “marvellous”, “outstanding”, “the coolest British film of the year” splashed across posters and advertisements of this film. It’s British, it’s set in grim-ish 70s, it’s based on a true and depressing story about an iconic figure, and it’s in black and white. Even if you don’t understand a single second of it, there’s something about Control that made lowly critics think “yes, this is a film I should like, ergo I’ll throw out a one-word appraisal to try and get on posters and be seen to support “cool” British films.” Naturally I don’t group myself in with other critics. I mean, I use the word “ergo” in my opening paragraph. I’m just in a different league.

Anyway, ignoring all the tosh praise, Control is one of those films that will rattle your emotions - and here you thought I was going to disagree with plebby critics. Well, I might shortly, but right now I must sprinkle praise where praise is due. For Control paints a bleak picture of a bright spark, troubled by fame, family and his own brain, and it certainly grasps at the emotion strings, especially since you know what’s coming. Joy Division were before my time (I’m THAT youthful), but after teachings from 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, and an inherit Mancunian pride despite not liking a vast amount of Mancunian product, I knew that the band a) were genre-carving, and b) had a singer who committed suicide. It doesn’t really bode well for a happy ending.

Control is based on the book by Deborah Curtis, Ian’s widow, and follows Ian’s story from his teenage meeting with her, through his rise to fame, and onwards to his unfortunate finish.

Leading the film is relative newcomer Sam Riley, giving a sultry, powerful performance, particularly when mimicking the staggering on-stage presence of Curtis. He’s supported by producer Samantha Morton as Curtis’ devoted wife, turning in a solid performance as expected from the Mighty Morton (that’s what they call her. Honest.) and a gaggle of fellows playing recognisable names from the era, including Tony Wilson. It’s almost a companion piece to Winterbottom’s 24-Hour, picking out one strand of the story and exploring it in detail - albeit leaving most of the comedy out, although a few laughs are to be had with the band’s manager.

Mostly, though, this is a film matching Curtis’ downcast gaze. He’s unhappy, his wife’s unhappy, we’re all unhappy, and no one gets any happier when Curtis confuses his life and mind even further by embarking on an affair. It seems the more successful his band becomes, the more unhappy he is, and the more tangled his romantic life becomes. Generally I can cope with unhappy, and have practically wished for it in the last few films, but when unhappy begins to drag, alarm-bells start to ring. At 123 minutes, Control isn’t the longest film in the world, but it’s certainly not the shortest, and after the 90 minute mark you start to become conscious of the time. Everyone’s pretty miserable by this point, and for the last half hour it’s just one long tudge towards the inevitable.

It’s a shame, because such an electrifying performance from Riley is thinned out by the running-time. The direction of the plot also seems to lack ‘control’, flittering between a tale of the band, exploring Curtis’ personal battle, and the frustration from his women. A little more focus, preferably on Curtis himself, would have gone a long way. But still, this is a strong film, with a belting sound-track and performances, and a fascinating character study. You will come out with a distinct melancholic after-taste and a sore behind (from sitting for so long of course) but it is worth a gander. Not so much “marvellous” as “pretty good”, Control just slides in with a CF2.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

3rd October 07 - Michael Clayton

Little Georgie Peorgie (I bet he loves being called that) seems to have a passion for staring in lots of films with Very Important Messages about the world we live in today. Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, The Good German, Ocean’s Twelve (message: some films suck big-time). It’s a growing trend in Hollywood, this politically aware guilt, one exemplified by the trailers preceding this week’s film - all set in Washington, with talk of ‘war’ and ‘terror’ and ‘prisoners’ and blah-de-blah-blah-blah. Yes, these things are all very important, and yes, films should be made about them. But couple this American political guilt with the disaster flicks intent on blowing up New York (oh the poignancy, but give it a rest - I am Legend, Project Cloverfield etc) and sometimes I just want to write them all a letter to explain that there are other cities, and other governments, with just as many crappy things happening to them, and within them, so for Christ’s sake move on to the Next Big Thing or at least shove some kick-ass robot toys in there so we’re not all bashing our brains out in guilty despair.

That was an unexpected tangent. What I started off trying to say was that Georgie Peorgie has done lots of serious-type films, which means he’s no longer seen as “the handsome one off ER”. Now his name can make pretentious types like me see a film without even bothering to check what it’s about. Because Georgie makes serious films about “issues”, and right now “issues” are so god-damn fashionable.

Sorry - that tangent coming back. Anyway, George plays Michael Clayton, a sort of lawyer type (in bloody New York…) who stumbles across a potentially deadly truth, unearthed by his un-hinged lawyer friend (an excellent Tom Wilkinson). Generally, films about lawyers ‘trial’ my patience because they always end up in a court room, with lots of SHOUTING and pointing, and noble jurors nodding as the hero saves the day, after spending three quarters of the film looking in files and SHOUTING at witnesses and stuff. Yawn. Thankfully, Michael Clayton keeps everything out of the court room and into semi-reality, with an icy look at the corporate world, and the relationship between law firm and client (ie; money).

What Michael Clayton does is dodge and weave around the usual law-based clichés, and instead delivers a remarkably fresh take on the genre. It’s almost a mystery / thriller, with some modern guilt and musings on life’s purpose thrown in. Georgie heads up the fresh feel by playing Clayton with a huge dollop of hood-eyed woe and misery. The trade-mark smile and twinkly eyes hardly make an appearance. He is instead angry, brow-beaten, and mad keen on horses (you’ll get it). He acts his little chops off at times, mostly through the eyes, and is as ever a strong, watchable lead. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, though, with Tom Wilkinson, as mentioned, a vivid spark in the corporate gloom, Tilda Swinton, whose nervous cracks glimmer beautifully through her icy exterior, and a host of rent-a-law-firm-business-types to fill in the scenery.

For all its freshness, however, it’s a great shame that the film falls back on old favourites towards the end, with the hero making a stand, George cracking into his very familiar way of speaking. Where he pauses. Just to make his sentences feel. Important. All the while tipping his head to one side with that sly twinkle in his eyes. It doesn’t happen much, but it falls just as the film falls - lazily at the climax. It’s also a shame that Tilda Swinton’s character is bumped from being an interesting human (sweat patches of fear, practiced speeches) to token Evil Corporation Head. There’s also the questionable solutions her company finds to certain “problems” that tars over the otherwise realistic tones.

However, this doesn’t mean Michael Clayton wasn’t engaging, exciting, and thought-provoking without shoving “issues” in your face every five seconds. Georgie plays it well, and though it’s not as clever and important as its pretentious “look at me acting” end credit sequence, Clayton still racks up a CF2 for entertaining me in a different way. And all that without any robots too. Impressive.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

19th Sep 07 - Superbad

You may remember a few weeks ago I saw, and was pleasantly surprised by, Knocked Up, a remarkably grown-up, insightful comedy that still retained an immature level of silliness, which made it a barrel of different sized laughs. Its trailer and premise suggested gross-out naffness, but in reality it served up a very different slice of comedy pie. So when another film pops up from the same makers, with another trailer and premise that suggested gross-out naffness (teenage lads wanting to ‘do’ girls) I hoped that a similar surprise would occur.

It seems that surprises, like lightening, rarely strike in the same place twice.

If films portray reality correctly, then I’ve learnt over the last couple of weeks that men are perverted, sex-obsessed freaks who talk and think only about how to get women into bed, and who like to wear dead badgers on their heads (alright, maybe Hallam was alone on that one.) To be fair, none of this is a surprise. But as the first ten minutes of Superbad rolled by with a never-ending stream of crude conversations about porn and the like, I thought “crikey, is this really what lads talk about all day? Isn’t it boring. And not very funny.”

Thankfully the film warms up, as Seth (Jonah Hill - also in Knocked Up, and the spitting image of deceased Chris Penn. Seriously - put him in a blue tracksuit and he IS Nice Guy Eddie from Reservoir Dogs), Evan (Michael Cera, George Michael from the spectacularly great Arrested Development), and Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) battle to get booze (ha ha to the Americans - I could buy booze when I was 18! In your faces!) so they can go to a party and get with the girls of their dreams. It’s only when a series of crazy events introduces two dysfunctional cops (Bill Hader and Seth Rogen, the writer and star of Knocked Up) that the fun for us adults begins. And by mixing ‘fun’ with ‘adult’ I don’t mean the sort of thing Seth would enjoy. I mean things that people over the age of 15 would find funny.

It’s a shame, really, because the playful banter between the leads actually feels real. I could very well imagine boys of that age having those conversations, and realistic-ish dialogue was one of the aspects that warmed me to Knocked Up. The three leads are strong, competent comedy actors, even if Michael Cera plays the same character from Arrested Development (he plays it very well though, and the scene where he is forced to sing is fabulous.) There’s also some nice brotherly moments in there, where the strong friendship between the leads is explored (especially the sleep-over, probably the best scene of the film).

On a side note, Superbad and Knocked Up have been accused of having misogynistic tendencies by featuring only beautiful women but still having reasonably ugly men, as if that’s never happened in any film or television programme ever before. Seriously, if you want to tackle the still ever-present issue of female image in the media, don’t go after a teen movie and expect it to be the root cause. I could write a thesis on the subject, but I won’t. Someone’s probably already done so, and it’d only make me angry about the subject, and make anyone reading this stop (because men don’t give a crap about it, really, and most women already know.)

Anyway, Superbad had funny moments, a strong cast and a streak of realism in its dialogue, but an unoriginal concept, long stretches of no-laughter time, and an almost cringe-inducing insistence on forcing in every sexual reference possible. The younger, stupid brother to Knocked Up’s mature, wry big sister, Superbad will probably delight males between 13 and 16, but to everyone else it’s asking a big commitment before you get to any of the good stuff. It just misses out on a CF0 (I wouldn’t really recommend it to many people, unless I happen on a group of ‘youths’) and bobs in with a CF-1. Not super-bad, but not super-good either.

12th Sep 07 - Hallam Foe

It’s a common truth that spying on people is lots of fun. Neighbours are fascinating, buzzing about their gardens, or their front rooms or kitchens (depends on where you’re viewing them from) doing their everyday things - boring things that you do too, but made more interesting because it’s someone else. Like the song by Modest Mouse, other people’s lives are more interesting because they aren’t mine.

Young Hallam Foe shares my fascination, only he devotes a lot more of his time and effort to it (my spying only really occurs from a seated position, unless the event really warrants a crouch by the window) and he also likes to don a dead badger on his head and wear his dead mother’s clothes and make up. Hallam’s in a different league, really.

Look up the plot keywords for this film on imdb and you’ll see a cornucopia of incestuous terms and dodgy behaviour. It looks like Jamie Bell has tried to pick the polar opposite to ‘Kes-with-dancing’ Billy Elliot, that made him a star back in the day. And who can blame him - what twenty-something lad wants to be remembered as a little skipping, jumping brat? In Hallam Foe, Bell turns in an impressive performance, mixing creepy with naïve, charming with cunning and confused with voyeuristic greatness. He carries the film, and I’m curious to see where his next move will be as an actor.

Despite the slightly disturbing nature of the plot (Hallam’s relationship choices all having a ‘mother’ theme) Hallam Foe is a much lighter film than expected. Hallam bumps into an array of jovial Scottish types on his travels, latching on to Kate (Sophia Myles), the vaguely unhinged HR worker who gives Hallam his first job, and also resembles a certain dead parent. The film follows Hallam’s relationship with her, with his own battle to get over losing his mother, and with his increasingly estranged father and rent-an-evil-step-mother (whose facial features are so strikingly evil, you wonder if she’s CGI).

So Hallam wanders away from voyeuristic-creepy and dabbles with elements of comedy and romance, as well as a bit of murder-mystery thriller. But rather than add to the film, I felt almost cheated by these plot directions. As a character, Hallam has the potential for following many dark paths, and as an actor, Bell could have coped with all, making this a challenging, powerful film. But watered down and striving for a ‘happy’ ending, the film feels like it’s pulled short of its true potential.

Not that I’m a sicko who wanted a dark, nasty film full of incest and voyeurism. But something along those lines would have certainly elicited emotion, maybe revulsion, but at least some form of reaction. Watered-down Hallam was entertaining, at times intriguing, but mostly left little impression. It’s reviewed in magazines like “Star!” and “Kabam!” and “Whatever!” with “oo Jamie Bell’s really moved on in this hot tale of blah-de-blah! Wow!” Big deal - I wanted something better than average because it’s been a long time since a film has really made me go ‘wow’. It even took me over a week before I could even be bothered to review this.

In short, though it wasn’t a bad film, it wasn’t a great film either, and I seem to be taking my ‘lack of great film’ frustrations out on it today. Harsh, maybe, but that’s the way the cinemafool world goes. Hallam gets a recommended CF0, albeit in a lacklustre tone. Now if you don’t mind, I think my neighbour’s just got home…

Monday, September 10, 2007

5th Sep 07 - 2 Days in Paris

Marion and Jack have been together for two years. Marion is French, Jack is American, and at the end of their European holiday they stop by Marion’s home city of Paris for two days (hence the title), where they happen to bump into numerous men from Marion’s past, forcing Jack to question their relationship after a series of “hilarious” misunderstandings.

The above synopsis screams “rom-com” to me, and would have been a film I’d have avoided with effort, like I do with those people giving out free newspapers on the streets (they’re on the bus, they’re in my office, I don’t want any more so stop looking offended when I don’t take one. They’re free - leave them on the street and we’ll help ourselves if we want to.) But, as I seem to be mellowing with age, I gave it a go and did not leave the cinema with the usual cynical sneer and nausea.

Hats off, then, to Julie Delphy, who not only played Marion, but also wrote, directed and composed the score for this film. Smarty pants. Delphy’s story is nothing particularly new, but her delivery is frank, realistic and a little charming too. The ties between Marion and Jack feel real, filled with the nuances of a couple who have spent two years together. Squabbles, in-jokes, comfort and those niggling doubts when considering the future. As with Knocked Up, this adds a neat thorn to the usual rose-tinted view of romance.

Delphy gels with Adam Goldberg’s Jack, the two creating scenes that feel improvised, riffing off each other rather than just trawling through lines on a script. The film has several shades of ‘funny’, be it sweet little directorial touches, wry banter between family, or abstract moments like a crazy man on the tube (Goldberg’s method for scaring him away was particularly memorable).

At times the tone wavered into dodgy territory, showing France from Jack’s American perspective as a strange place, with strange traditions, full of strange foreigners doing and eating stranger things. Ooo those weird French, the Americans will be thinking (replace ‘weird’ with ‘bloody’ if you’re British). Poor old Jack, stuck in that weird country. Let’s laugh at the foreigners and their silly culture. Occasionally I had to remind myself that Delphy is French herself, quelling my assumptions that this is your usual naff Hollywood rom-com that’s set itself in a ‘foreign’ country to give the lazy writers extra jokes. And on looking deeper, Delphy tags on a few American stereotypes, with some digs about their attitude towards terrorism. She makes Jack form his own stereotypes of his surroundings and mirrors it with her family’s attitude towards ‘the American’ that she’s brought into their midst.

By steering Jack and Marion’s main problems towards the issue of thirty-something relationships, Delphy just about avoids making this another boring culture-clash flick. Instead she looks into relationships, how people cope with their destruction, with their past, and with never really knowing the other person. It’s slightly uplifting yet slightly depressing too.

Delphy and Goldberg’s chemistry add to Delphy’s strong script and playful direction. Dig into the bag of adjectives and you can bring out funny, charming, sweet, real and absorbing. Not overly original in concept, but still nicely done, 2 Days in Paris matches its days for CF points (that’s CF2 if you can’t figure it out.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

22nd August 07 - The Bourne Ultimatum

Ah Matt Damon, the rectangular-headed, furrow-foreheaded blonde who made one of the best career decisions ever when he signed up to play Jason Bourne. The series blended spy fun, jolting action and a new breed of brutal fight scenes, which later filtered into Bond and made it good again. The Bourne Ultimatum enters this year’s trilogy race with a successful novel behind it, providing a head-start on the competition. Unlike the barrage of other three-quels out this summer (Shrek, Ocean’s, Spider-Man) Bourne has a story to finish, rather than a scrabble to set up a new one.

After waking with no memory in the first film, and having his little love-nest destroyed in the second, Bourne is understandably a bit peed off, so the general gist of the third instalment is that he’s still pretty peeved and still looking for more answers. It’s familiar territory to established fans (though potentially a confusing mess to any who venture in without pre-knowledge) with a variety of locations dotted through Europe, lots of cat and mouse antics, and enough chases and fights to leave you visually exhausted.

The fights are, as ever, slick yet dirty, with Bourne using whatever implement he can find that’ll do the most damage. Every thwack, crack and crunch is amplified to ear-splitting effect. It’s a good job they didn’t show Jason taking a break to eat a Toffee Crisp or the ears would have been bleeding in the aisles. Fast edits creates a frantic feel, so the inevitable car chase gets the heart pumping, but at times I wished things would calm down just a little so I could tell what the hell was going on. A large portion of the film involves watching people move quickly while the soundtrack ‘der-der-der-der-ders’ away in the background. It’s exciting, but ever-so-slightly tiresome after an hour of it.

Not that there are many negatives to this film. It’s still a taut thriller, with a strong cast, intriguing plot and some belting action pieces. I’m just not over-whelmed by it, because underneath beats the heart of a basic action. The components are all there – brooding goodie who can beat the crap out of everyone and come out of explosions and horrific crashes with barely a scratch on him. Women get in trouble and need saving by the goodie. Baddies comes in levels – level 1 being faceless chasers, level 2 slightly more difficult fighters, and the big bad sits in a control room hatching evil plans. And coincidences and lucky breaks serve as handy devices to further the plot. It’s like Die Hard without the quips.

But the Bourne series covers everything with darker shades, and with a sombre tone that makes it easier to take serious. And with a strong Damon in the lead as a believable killer who’s also sympathetic, and the final pieces to a three-film puzzle falling into place, Ultimatum is worthy of a watch. Not mind-blowing, but certainly gripping and entertaining, Bourne bumps up to CF1.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

15th August 07 - Knocked Up

It’s ironic I should see this film after last week’s anti-child tirade. I know I might have been a little harsh, but it was with good reason. A child is, after all, the most permanent of items you could acquire. It’s something that, illness and accident aside, will outlive you. It’s just impossible to get any more permanent than that. It’s a scary concept in general, but Knocked Up deals with the even scarier fear that most women have: what if I get pregnant by mistake? And even worse: what if I get pregnant by a total loser?

It’s the latter that’s the main focus for Alison (Katherine Heigl - off Grey’s Anatomy) after a bit of a mishap with Ben (Seth Rogen - bit-parter in many comedies). Alison has an up-and-coming career on TV. Ben has a lack of job, joy of pot, and gaggle of greasy mates. A drunken night out sees the ’mishap’ take place, and this film deals with the aftermath. It’s from the writer/director of the 40-Year-Old Virgin, so expectations are for gross-out slap stick type goo. What you get is a surprisingly grown-up, insightful comedy.

Rather than cash-in on the American Pie band wagon (it seems people are still trying to cash in, even when that wagon’s old and creaky now), Knocked Up takes a step back, a deep breath, and actually spends time building a plot, characters, and their ever-evolving relationships. This isn’t a film that feels like it’s been “knocked up” in a couple of late night sessions. You don’t get the impression the writers have struggled for a punch-line and thought ‘sod it, make one of them fart instead’.

The comedy is a mish-mash of styles, from sitcom arguments, to stoner gags, to improvised madness, to ‘holy crap I did not want to see that’ shocks. Literally something for everyone. Ben and his friends provide the spaced-out, Clerks-esque banter with references a-plenty, while Alison’s sister and brother-in-law tackle clenched-teeth bickering. This all sits alongside some fairly dramatic fall-outs and, god I can’t believe I’m saying it, but some actual heart-warming moments, strong enough even to puncture the icy confines of my bitter chest.

But Knocked Up also wins points in my book because of its cynical, slightly depressed view of the world. “I wish I could love anything as much as she loves bubbles” sighs brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd) as he watches his child play. Poor old Pete has had his life sapped by getting older and having a family. His equally stressed wife Debbie (Leslie Mann), Alison’s sister, gets ever more frantic about getting older, being more unattractive and having zero support from her hubbie. It’s not like I enjoy seeing people unhappy, or having reminders about how rubbish life can sometimes get. It’s just refreshing to see a comedy emerge without a completely rose-tinted view of the romantic world.

An excellent cast certainly helps matters. Seth Rogen plays the likeable loser Ben with a few streaks of selfishness that stoners often show. Katherine Heigl is impressive as Alison and thankfully rises above the ‘token hottie’ role. Meanwhile the ever brilliant Paul Rudd (Anchorman, Friends) is charmingly grown-up and Leslie Mann nails the slightly unhinged but sort of rightly so Debbie. The men V women view is neatly balanced, the men being thoughtless and stupid as expected, but not spiteful and mean, while the women nag and moan to excessive levels, but are on the whole ultimately right (the film isn’t as biased as me, I promise).

Of course, having ‘rom’ stuck in with the ‘com’ means the usual cliches end up applying. A montage of love growing. A falling-out. A montage of people being unhappy. An eventual reconciliation in dramatic circumstances. Aw. But Knocked Up definitely has elements to satisfy many different levels of audience, even those as high and mighty as me. For making me laugh it gains a point, and for doing it in a clever, cynical fashion it gains an extra, making a commendable CF2. And not to brag or anything, but I got a preview of it. For free.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

8 August 07 - The Simpsons Movie

“Children should be seen but not heard.” Partially true, though I’d like to add ‘smelt’ to the list of unwanted senses. But when it comes to cinemas, I don’t think children should be - full stop. As in, they shouldn’t be in the screenings, they shouldn’t be around the sticky food counters, they shouldn’t be clogging up the toilets. They shouldn’t even be outside the cinema, as you'd be polluted by them on your way inside.

It’s not like I hate toddlers in the cinema. I also hate pre-teens, teenagers and young adults. In my book all of them have lower than average attention spans and a sacrilegious lack of respect for the sanctity of film. Loud, physically offensive, disruptive and stupid, these age-groups should not be allowed to mix in enclosed spaces with the rest of society. As a rule, idiots annoy me, and when little dribbling idiots are actually brought to the cinema by their idiot parents then it’s a double whammy. I watched The Departed in America and some fools brought their toddler with them, who promptly became bored and fidgety. Was it the toddler’s fault? Partially – they should learn to know when to keep still. But how that “good idea” popped into the parents’ heads is a mystery. Idiots.

Anyway, summer holidays mean more horrible children are infecting the public world. Seriously, if zombies were children, then last night was like Dawn of the Dead in a cinema. Worse even – at least the guys in DotD didn’t have to queue behind their foes. And they didn’t have them sitting behind them, idly kicking seats and running around the aisles, questioning uselessly during quiet parts of the film and guessing what was going to happen next. I’d take a room full of zombies over children any-day, and I have serious zombie-fear. Actually, mix a room full of zombies with children and now you’re talking about entertainment.

Of course, if I become a parent I’d probably want my children to experience the cinema, and would despise the ignorant snobs who’d sneer at me whilst tarring every child with the same displeased-brush. But my children, through education and ingrained fear, will be respectful of film and know that the cinema is a special, quiet place where toilet breaks are not allowed. They’ll even have learnt from an early age how to turn their heads and give an angry glare to idiots behind them.

But anyway I can’t help thinking there was another purpose to writing this… oh yeah. I saw a good episode of the Simpsons last night. It was definitely one of the better ones (the most recent series being a bit flat), with some good jokes and the usual meandering, unusual plot. It felt a bit longer than usual and the animation was a little different, but still enjoyable TV.

Oh hang on. Silly me – it was a film, not the usual show! Tisk, how could I have forgotten that? I suppose it’s because it was the same as watching four good episodes in a row. Funny, wry, touching on topical issues, making fun of the Fox network - basically no different to what we’ve seen over the last 17 years or so. There’s nothing much to say other than "yeah, it was a good episode of the Simpsons". There was no real reason to make this film, nothing to separate it from its TV base. It’s just lucky that the TV base is one of the most funny and successful shows around, otherwise this film wouldn’t have made it to CF1. It was only just worth braving the horrible children for, but if you end up watching it at home on TV then there’ll be no great loss to your enjoyment. At least there you can lock the kids in their rooms.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

1 August 07 - Transformers

Ah. Michael Bay. What a wonderful world he must live in. See, in Bay’s world “understated” is a helicopter chase in soft-focus. A quick action scene lasts for twenty minutes. Chiselled men make heart-wrenching sacrifices to the sounds of Aerosmith. Poignant statements start with “no matter what happens…” Every woman, regardless of her character, is a twenty-something hottie. And when exciting things happen, heavy metal music always kicks in. Bay has always aimed high in terms of scale (Armageddon, Pearl Harbour) but often faltered by employing laughable dialogue and Ben Affleck. Let’s face it, the chances of him making another dudd were pretty high, especially when he’s working with characters based on a range of toys from the 80s.

It’s an odd subject choice for a summer blockbuster. You’re dealing with a storyline about a bunch of alien robots who can turn into vehicles. The aliens have ridiculous names like ‘Megatron’ and ‘Optimus Prime’. The opening line of the film is: “Before time began, there was... the cube.” It’s not an easy topic to take seriously. So Michael Bay doesn’t, and this is why it wins.

Transformers becomes the perfect vehicle for Bay. He can be cheesy, because let’s face it what else can you do? And he’s got free reign to do as many head-battering action sequences as he wants, with an awesome arsenal of tools. And by tools, I mean frickin’ massive robots. The effects are absolutely jaw-dropping. Let’s not forget that on set the only hint of a ‘bot was a 30-foot washing pole with a cardboard head. But on screen the transformers interact with scenery and actors with barely a hint of a green-screen haze. Buildings smash, cars are thrown, people are flicked away, and all the while the ‘bots glisten in the sun, or drip with water, a myriad of mechanic parts independently clunking into place. The amount of time and effort spent on creating these beasts is unfathomable, but it’s worked with stunning effect.

Bay puts these extraordinary effects through their paces with some ingenious shots. ‘Bots blast through buildings full of people in complete slow-mo, every wall bashed through, every person diving for cover at the right moment, all shown in precision to the CGI creations. Scraps are seen from pedestrian eye-view with shaky-cam realism. Robots crunch themselves into car shapes and speed off into the distance. Basically Bay is a giant child, wheeling his toys along while making ‘neeeeerrrrr’ noises out the corner of his mouth. And I was giggling along with him, regressing into giddy toddler, enjoying the whole spectacle and wishing I had me a few of those toys too.

But Bay’s two biggest problems are not being able to edit, and making the characters a bit naff. Problem one is still apparent. He does get a little carried away, the last battle putting the ‘ep’ in ‘epic’ for sheer volume and length, and some scenes did drag under the weight of too many unnecessary plot strands. It’s to be expected, and didn’t diffuse the overall ‘wowza’ impact, but if he could learn to let go then Bay’s films would be tighter, and potentially brilliant.

His second problem was initially an issue too. My face fell when the film started with Generic Soldiers sitting in a helicopter (Bay LOVES helicopters). There was Chiselled Hot Guy, a couple of token minorities, even a token geek with big spectacles. As Chiselled Hot Guy talked about wanting to get home to see his baby girl, my eyes were rolling and my worries were being confirmed. But enter main character Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBeouf. Shia is not only likeable in a non-“token goofy guy” way, but Bay takes time out to have lengthy, American-Pie-esque scenes with Sam and his parents, which end up being surprisingly funny. In fact, I laughed a heck of a lot at this film, in most part at the purposeful comedy (lots of fun robot banter, a few in-jokes and some good peeing gags), and in others at the over-blown silliness and trite messages (“all humans deserve a chance at freedom”). For other films this would have been the nail on the shit-coffin, but in this the tone fits. A big blue robot is delivering the sentiment, after all.

Of course it’s stupid, and of course it’s rifled with piles of steaming cheese. But it’s bloody enjoyable cheese, that’s raised the bar on visual effects. Funny, exciting, thrilling. Not without flaws, but the most impressive so far of this summer’s blockbuster selection. Though it loses points for a flimsy middle-section and over-long finale, Transformers still impresses enough to climb to CF2. A sequel is apparently already in the works. Here’s hoping Transformers vs Care Bears will be on our screens soon.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

24th July 07 - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Five films down, two to go in this bumper series based on the ludicrously popular books. This time Potter is Mr. Moody, has a shorter hair-cut and still fiddles with his wand (huh huh). Originally it seemed the further into the series we went, the darker it was getting, and the quality was improving to the point where I nearly understood what all the fuss was about. Alas, number five tries to keep it gloomy, but trips up some point after the opening sequence (which was good) and settles on general mediocre.

Director David Yates is a newbie to the series, having several episodes of The Bill on his CV. Of course, we all have to start somewhere, and though there are Fincher-esque camera moves through windows and walls (was half expecting a coffee-pot handle too), the use of clichéd lightening flashes/storms to signify something poignant/shocking gave everything a bit of a cheapo feel. The acting didn’t help. I’m sure they’re very nice people, but most of the time I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a school production. Characters stand patiently, waiting to deliver their lines on cue, and the main cast must have had the “breathing heavily” acting lesson, as it was used to convey fear, anger, pain and general dismay. Probably joy too, only no one got to use it because everyone’s so bloody miserable in this one.

I feel like I’m being super negative, so let’s put some good points out there. The visual effects are as always stunning, and thankfully less in-your-face than the previous film (which had a “Look at the effect! Look at it!” mentality). Imelda Staunton is amusing as the prissy new teacher employing rule after rule, and some neat methods of school punishment. And there is a dark thread running throughout, with Potter a bit miffed that he has no family, and struggling to cope as big bad Voldemort tries to break into his mind.

But for a film lasting over two hours, it’s surprising how very little actually happens. My Potter advisor, whom I regularly annoy by not being bothered to read the books but still questioning what happens, has told me that this is one of the weaker books, but that the film also misses great chunks of detail (one of the pitfalls of an adaptation). Still, to a non-reader the plot comes across as patchy and inconclusive, with supporting characters drifting in and out. There’s also a formulaic feel starting to creep in. Adults talk about Bad Stuff but keep it hidden from Potter (to be revealed at the end). New teacher is employed at the school who seems a bit dodgy (dodginess revealed at the end). No one believes/likes Potter (to be rectified at the end). With the film versions having to forgo the smaller details, there needs to be a bigger differentiating factor to make them worthwhile. Sadly, number five lacks it.

Since the interest of seeing Potter’s world being brought to screen has waned, a ‘so what?’ factor has started to creep into my mind. Battles always feel wrapped in cotton wool, and even when a character dies with potentially devastating effects for the Pottster, the incident is under-played. While I’ve no doubt the popularity of the books will propel the final duo of films, my attitude to the franchise is that of indifference. I was initially going to give this a CF0, but having written such an unenthusiastic review I’ve convinced myself to lower it to a CF-1. Besides, as far as book-adaptations go, my attention is firmly on a little girl called Lyra. And her big fuck-off armoured bear.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

18th July 07 - Die Hard 4.0

Tis the season of grizzly actors returning to their action flicks of yore, with Brucie joining the likes of Stallone (Rocky and the upcoming John Rambo) and Ford (going back to Indiana Jones - he’s 65 years old for Christ’s sake!) As a series, Die Hard never really surpassed its original (an absolute classic) so I questioned the need for a fourth instalment with a more ‘mature’ John McClane. To justify this new one, they needed to do something spectacular. And they don’t disappoint.

Ignoring the weaker UK title of 4.0, this fourth instalment of McClane’s antics as a one-man crime-fighting lunatic asks the question ‘live free, or die hard’? What it should be asking is ‘how much blood can McClane leak before he really needs a wash?’ Within the first thirty minutes, John’s been aggressively shot at, exploded, run over and hurled from a speeding vehicle, leaving his head a criss-cross of oozing grazes. “It makes me look sexy,” he quips, limping away from the third (of many) head-pounding action sequences. It also makes him look well ‘ard, and proves that this guy in his fifties can still kick ass, and quip-ass.

This film is absolutely jam-packed with insane yet deliciously enjoyable stunts. Baddies are flung every which way, cars roll through the air (just brushing the last remaining hair on Brucie’s head), helicopters are taken down by flying cars and a lorry battles against a jet. A lorry verses a jet! Come on!

The crazy old-school action sits alongside a modern, relevant plot involving technology being hi-jacked, with some good digs at the dodgy nature of the news and the general reign of fear it produces. Mirroring that is the double-act of Brucie’s haggard cop and newbie Justin Long (the dude from Herbie and Dodgeball), a hacker inadvertently caught in the mayhem. Long is surprisingly likeable and riffs with Brucie well, injecting humour amongst all the carnage. And the big bad is played by wide-mouthed lovely Timothy Olyphant (Bullock from the brilliant Deadwood) who hams it up nicely with a mix of scary and witty.

Of course, being an action film there’s no real shortage of silly. McClane is near-enough invincible, repelling bullets and avoiding death when it’s shoved in his face every five minutes. His daughter is perhaps unnecessarily shoved in to add to the people he has to rescue, though she at least puts up a bit of a fight instead of being the token woman.

As the plot involves ‘technology’ and ‘hackers’ there are also the inevitable Hollywood scenes of people using computers in a naff way. I know nothing about hacking and the like, but I’m fairly sure it involves a little more than typing quickly on a keyboard. Otherwise I’d have cracked a dozen networks already just by writing this review. What can they possibly be typing in those situations? They say “I’ll get you a map up of this place”. And type: get map up of this place. There, easy.

But Die Hard isn’t about making complete sense or tying in with the laws of logic. It’s about big, bold fun, and number four hits the nail on the head. It’s 130 minutes of daft excitement and giddy enjoyment, and swings in with a CF1. It would’ve made an extra point if Brucie was wearing his vest.

Friday, July 06, 2007

4th July 07 - Shrek the Third

It seems to be a summer of thirds. Spider-Man. Pirates of the bloody Caribbean. And now Shrek.. When Shrek first emerged it surprised us with its smart little digs at popular culture, adult humour mixed with child-friendly fun and nice messages about being yourself. The second film built on the first, with extra celebrities, some more nice messages about being yourself, and a giant gingerbread man. Number three sees Shrek worrying about entering fatherhood, another quest type adventure. And some nice messages about being yourself.

This time, as well as baby-fear, Shrek must find the rightful king of Never Never Land, while dealing with Prince Charming harbouring a bit of a grudge. As with the previous films there are some neat little pieces. A trip to a ye olde university is done with a wry smile, and there’s a nod to the ‘WAG’ culture with a gaggle of catty princesses.

Laughs can certainly be found, but they are a little more isolated than usual. Indeed, the whole film feels very familiar, but sort of empty. It’s like they knew they had the formula right, so there was no further effort put in. The plot and jokes seem to be going through the motions. Silly things happen just for the sake of it (Donkey and Puss-in-Boots swapping bodies, for very little reason and very little effect) and less time is spent with the fun ensemble of fairytale characters.. The whole film feels a bit like my attitude when trying to park in a small space at Tesco. It’s all pretty much in there, so sod it - that’ll do.

Not that it isn’t still entertaining and fun. You can watch with a smile throughout, and any film that has a gingerbread man shit a jelly-tot in fright wins stars in my book. But low marks for effort. We know they can do much better (although I’m aware some people hate Shrek’s green guts…) Shrek doesn’t get any extra CF points, and almost loses one for being a little vacuous ( the fact I can’t find anything else to write about must demonstrate this). But for being entertaining, with enough laughs to have me leave with a smile, Shrek scrapes in a CF0. Really, though, the last few films have had such low ratings I’m dying for something half decent. Is that a bald man in a vest I spy…

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

27th June 07 - Wedding Daze

Crikey I have been seeing a lot of shite recently, haven’t I? Ok, so maybe a wedding based rom-com isn’t my usual choice. But this was one of those impromptu cinema trips, limited by what I’d already seen and what my companions were willing to watch. I went in expecting utter toss. I wouldn’t say I was pleasantly surprised, but I’d definitely remove ’utter’ from my prediction.

Thankfully staying away from too much lovey-duvy nonsense, Wedding Daze is all about forlorn romantic Anderson (American Pie’s Jason Biggs) randomly asking a complete stranger, kooky waitress Katie (Wedding Crasher’s Isla Fisher with lovely hair) to marry him. When she decides to accept on a whim, hilarious antics ensue.. Well, by ‘hilarious’ I mean ‘vaguely smile-inducing’. And by ‘antics’ I mean ‘a few misunderstandings and stuff’. The tone aims towards gross-out, resulting in some grimacing scenes (parental fetishes) and some sort of funny slap-stick moments (toothpaste spat in the eye).

There’s not much else to write about, really. It wasn’t horrendous and certainly passed the time. But I’d get the same enjoyment from watching foolish teenagers skate-boarding off pavements for an hour in the hope that one of them will fall off. And that would have been cheaper. Wedding Daze is a bit of toss, but harmless none-the-less. And frankly better than Ocean’s Thirteen. Therefore it cruises in with CF-2.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

21st June 07 - Ocean's Thirteen

Like Fantastic Four 2, my willingness to watch this was only down to being tired in Munich and wanting a good sit down somewhere air-conditioned. Ocean’s Eleven was good fun, but Ocean’s Twelve was quite frankly offensive. I’d read that Ocean’s Thirteen is the apology for Twelve. If that’s the case, then this is the sort of apology you’d use when you actually didn’t really mean it. One of those “yeah, sorry, whatever” moments where you roll your eyes. In short, Ocean’s Thirteen is a teenager’s apology.

But let’s throw this out there - it’s not as bad as Twelve. They at least attempt a story with purpose rather than film themselves out on holiday in European cities. One of the gang is stung by Willie Bank (Al Pacino with orange hair that can’t possibly be his own) so the rest gather together to get Willie back with the most elaborate sting you’ve ever heard (yeah, let’s make an earthquake…) Cue lots of inconceivable devices used by the gang, lots of montages of them walking about Las Vegas with “cool” music playing, and… well, I’m trying to think of a third thing to complete this sentence, but I’m drawing a blank. That’s because the film is the equivalent of an episode of popular BBC show The Hustle. Only it’s longer, has more famous people in it, and their hustle isn’t actually that clever. As it all plays out, you’ll think to yourself ;“this can’t just be it, there’ll be something else, something very very clever coming up and… oh. No, that was it.”

I can’t really see a point to them having made this film. The simple story is overcomplicated by numerous plot strands that aren’t fully explained, but don’t actually mean anything anyway. Random jokes are thrown out and sit uncomfortably next to the bland nature of the rest of the film. And let’s face it, who gives a damn if this cool, suave bunch of guys with a shed load of money actually get away with whatever it is they want to do? In the first film there was the challenge of “how will they do it?” In this film problems are solved with the greatest of ease, or the most ludicrous of plans (aforementioned earthquake). Plus there’s the “comic” use of a chemical that makes women want to sleep with the wearer. Um… Rohypnol isn’t funny guys. And neither is your made-up chemical.

Though it didn’t aggravate me as much as Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen was still frustrating, pointless, and, like the Bavarian mountain I recently visited, Wank. Thus it slips down to CF-3. Stop it now, guys. Apology not accepted.

Friday, June 15, 2007

15th June 07 - Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Every sane fibre of my being would have kept me away from watching this. I haven’t seen the first one because it looked like it’d be a gaudy, silly child’s film. But, my situation as a cold, tired traveller in a wet Copenhagen propelled me into the cinema, and this was the only real choice. And yup. It was a gaudy, silly child’s film.

However, that doesn’t mean it didn’t pass the time in a reasonably enjoyable fashion. It’s bright and colourful with good effects and a sort of likeable bunch of characters. The Human Torch (Chris Evans) is amusingly cocky. The Thing (Michael Chiklis) is fascinating to watch after getting through a few series of the Sheild (it’s baby-faced brutal cop - covered in stone! When’s he going to hurt someone…?) Mr Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd) is a little naff but dead stretchy. And then there’s The Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba). She’s just plain scary. Her eyes are the most weirdly CGI-enhanced plastically creepy eyes I have ever seen. Couple them with massive lips, skinny face and unnatural blonde hair, and she resembles a creepy version of a creepy plastic doll that’s got all warped in the sun. It’s a shame they had to “enhance” Alba in this way (she avoids my hate-list somehow, probably because she’s not yet smug like the Johanssons and Knightleys) but it does sort of add to the comic book feel.

The film revolves around the Silver Surfer, and his big boss who actually eats planets. Pretty cool, really, yet any hint of darkness is constantly washed away with slapstick moments, or silly jokes, or camels. But hey - FF is not a dark comic, and this film matches the mood perfectly. Characters behave in laughably stupid ways (hey you’re evil, I’m not trusting you. Now wait in this room filled with useful tools while I turn my back. Don’t do anything evil, though.. I’ll just be over here..) And the baddy, Dr Doom (the lovely Julian McMahon from Nip/Tuck) is ham-tastic. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d added comedy sound effects during the fight scenes. Maybe little animated birds twittering round someone’s unconscious head. Or Mr Fantastic slipping on a banana peel.

It’s all very silly and a bit throw-away, but not half as horrendous as DareDevil. The Danes certainly enjoyed it, though I suspect their subtitles had better jokes (there was a lot of laughing in the cinema at jokes that weren’t overly funny.) I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend this, but it didn’t rate too highly on my scorn-meter. Therefore Fantastic Four comes in with a CF-1. Not Fantastic, but not Four-king awful either (that’s about the level of humour you can expect. Minus the swearing.)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

23rd May 07 - Zodiac

David Fincher has a weird habit of either missing the mark (Panic Room, Alien 3), hitting the mark solidly (The Game, Se7en) or hitting it so spot on it’s enough to make your head spin with the greatness (Fight Club). With his sixth film, Fincher tackles a real life detective story, that of 60s/70s serial killer “The Zodiac”, a creepy dude who liked sending letters to newspapers confessing to various killings and threatening more of the same. A bit scarier than your usual disgruntled Daily Mail reader writing in to complain about that week’s inflamed nonsense. Sorry - that was off topic, but hey.

Anyway, Fincher lines himself up with a cast who are not only fantastic actors but also, much to my joy, lovely to look at: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downy Jr and Mark Ruffalo. It’s winning already. Lovely Jake plays a geeky cartoonist for a newspaper, who also has a knack for solving puzzles and getting a bit obsessed with things. Lovely Bobby-Jr plays a ruthless reporter at the same paper, who writes up the Zodiac stories and is also a raging alcoholic. And Lovely Mark plays the detective assigned to the case, along with his partner Anthony Edwards (ER’s Doctor Greene, though he probably hates that he’s forever linked to that character. He gets to have a full head of hair in this, so that should make up for it.)

The film follows the investigations into the Zodiac killer, both from the detective’s point of view and that of lovely Jake, whose character decides to write a book on the case (said book written in real life, by the real life lovely Jake - Robert Graysmith - on which this film is based. Or something.) It makes up your basic serial killer v detective type of film, except this one doesn’t have a flash resolution (being stuck to real-life, where thrilling stand-offs never happen) and delves into a variety of other genres. There’s definitely a thriller/creep-fest element to it, giving the audience a front-row seat on a few of the Zodiac’s brutal slayings, and there are a few Se7en-style dark basement get-the-hell-out-of-there moments that’ll have you wriggling in your seat. There’s also a nice tale of obsession (Mr Graysmith just not letting go at expense of his family) and some chuckles to add to the flavour.

On top of all of this, Fincher has been sure to make his stylish mark. It’s like he’s peed all over the film - wherever you look you’ll get a whiff of Fincher. His camera goes off on fun journeys, be it peering out a car window, perched atop the Golden Gate bridge, or somehow following a moving vehicle in exactly the same birds-eye-view style as Grand Theft Auto. Thankfully he keeps his fun to the filler scenes, letting his formidable cast carry themselves. It all adds up to be one slick, solid piece of film.

At 158 minutes this is a stocky beast, but the time flies by in a mixture of suspense and intrigue. With a great cast, a fascinating story (all the more because it’s true) and some clever direction, Zodiac makes a killing with a CF3.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

16th May 07 - 28 Weeks Later

At first this looked like another lazy sequel. Keep the same story, change the title a little, swap all the main characters, add some Americans, plonk a random director in and hear the cash registers ching away with money spent by brainless fools who’ll watch any old rubbish if it’s bright and colourful. They even have a floppy haired pair of child siblings as the protagonists. As the well-known saying goes, it sounded like hell in a basket.

But it’s not quite as bad as it seems. For one thing the sequel is leap-frogging off a strong original. 28 Days… was from Danny Boyle/Alex Garland (the duo who brought us April’s CF3 rated Sunshine) and featured a new breed of zombie fun. Instead of shambling slow morons, 28 Days had super-speedy, bloody-faced lunatics. And though Boyle and Garland are absent from this sequel, the new director is Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, the Spanish writer/director of excellent 2001 flick Intacto. Chuck in Robert Carlyle and a bigger budget, and suddenly things start looking up.

Well, things aren’t exactly looking up for the characters, or the world for that matter. The film takes place 28 weeks after the original (hence the name. Clever, innit?) England has been purged of the ‘rage virus’ that caused so much havoc and the American army are supervising the reintegration of a non bloody-faced-lunatic population. But uh-oh – is that a fresh out-break I spy? Before you can say ‘is that blood you’re weeping’, London is back into a state of chaos. And now our new batch of survivors have to battle with both the angry infected, and also the crazy army, whose idea of ‘only trying to help’ is by horribly killing lots of civilians (seems familiar…)

With the luxury of not having to set up the scenario, Fresnadillo can leap straight into lots and lots of frantic running, violence and general horror. It’s great fun, and the director plays around with some neat little set pieces, in particular a pitch-black stumble through a deserted tube station, seen only through the night-vision of a sniper rifle. There’s jumps, thrills and a fantastic use of a helicopter (causing grimaces from one side of me, and giggles from the other). It’s enough to raise your heart rate throughout, and satisfies all basic speedy-zombie necessities. Watching Robert Carlyle pegging down a hillside, closely followed by a flock of rabid, scary people, is definitely my definition of fun.

The film does suffer a little from the removed original British roots. The slow set-up and story of the first film is abandoned in favour of a basic “we have to get from here to there” mentality, which seems to perfectly mirror your traditional horror computer game. “I’ll meet you over there, once you’ve performed a series of tasks” says their potential saviour. No, bloody-well meet me right here, please. You can almost count the levels as they work their way through.

The characters are also fairly generic, and almost all action pieces take place in front of some sort of London landmark. But hell, it’s a fast, fun and exhilarating ride, and it’s done pretty damn well. And so, just as the imaginative direction lifts this out of easy-sequel naffness, the rating is lifted to a commendable CF1. If only for the helicopter scene. Now that’s effective crowd control, if ever I saw it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

9th May 07 - Fast Food Nation

Yeah yeah yeah. We all know that fast food is bad for us. It’s already been covered in books, films, television - in fact, even if you haven’t seen or heard anything, it’s blindingly obvious that a big greasy burger is not going to produce healthy results. You’d have to be a total moron not to know this - in fact, you’d deserve to get flabby arteries if you thought any different. So why do we need another film about it all? What is there left to say?

Well, it seems Richard Linklater (who brought us last year’s A Scanner Darkly - a CF top 10) foresaw the above paragraph when he teamed up with Eric Schlosser, the writer of factual novel ‘Fast Food Nation’. Using Eric’s book as a starting point, the guys created a fictional fast food chain (Mickey’s Burgers) and a ensemble of fictional characters. And they used them all to say a heck of a lot more than ‘burgers are bad’.

Not that they come down on the side of burgers. One third of the film follows Don (Greg Kinnear, Little Miss Sunshine), a marketing exec at Mickey’s sent to investigate why traces of cow shit have been found in their burgers. Yummy. This is the point where a non beef-eater such as myself would stick their thumbs to the sides of their heads and waggle their fingers at everyone else, tongue protruding in a ‘ner ner ner-ner ner’ gesture, while secretly thanking the film-makers for a) not focussing on chicken-based products, and b) not showing all the genetically produced fungus that goes into meat substitutes. But at least I haven’t been eating cow shit. Ner ner.

The film’s other narrative strands follow a group of illegal Mexican immigrants sent to work in a meat-packing factory (from which the shit cometh), and a bunch of teenagers who work in one of the chains. The plot strands offer neat little ethical thoughts - the meatpackers are illegal, but they’ve come from poverty and this is a better choice, and Mr Marketing man knows he’s allowing shit and chemicals into the burgers, but they’re not killing anyone, he doesn’t have the power to stop it, and his family have to eat too. So who’s in the wrong, precisely?

But the big mamma of points is summed up in one scene, when a group of activists break down a fence up at the burgers-to-be cattle ranch in order to save the animals. The fence is down, but the cows just don’t want to move - they’re either too dumb to realise, or too afraid to escape their surroundings. Linklater’s basically saying everyone is a big dumb cow, putting up with everything that’s crap in the world because they’re too lazy, or afraid, or stupid to really do anything about it, even when there’s sometimes a solution staring them in the face. Now, I don’t think there’s any issue in particular that he’s aiming at here - just general apathy. Lots of characters harp on about taking action, making a stand, making a difference etc etc. It’s all very inspiring, and I came out of the cinema both completely ready to make a stand against the first atrocity I saw, and also feeling slightly nauseous from the graphic slaughter house scenes at the end.

At times the tone tips a little too far into preachy, with some scenes a bit too blatant (characters occasionally chatter away, then appear to throw in “yes, here comes this opinion which is very poignant” [looks at audience to check they’re paying attention]) and the split narrative creates a strange, disjointed feel to the piece. But with a great cast, some great messages and a clever way of transferring the text to screen, Fast Food Nation scrapes in with a CF2. It’s a shame that the people who could really benefit from its message will be more likely staring blankly at the wall in their nearest shit-burger outlet, than paying attention to the cinema.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

5th May 07 - Spider-Man 3

As they said in the previous two films, with great power comes great responsibility, and that is the cross that Sam Raimi must bear in his third offering of your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man (must get the hyphen in there or I’ll get in trouble…) His first film was met with ‘I didn’t think you could do it’ amazement. His second a jaw-dropping step up (come on, how can you not admire the Doc-Ock awakens scene?). I’m aware I may be spiralling into a pit of nerd-dom here, but who cares. Spider-Man rules, and if you don’t think so then I raise my palm to you in defiance. And written on my palm is “you are a fool”.

Anyway, it was with half excitement, half trepidation that I approached Spidey 3. Excitement because the first two were solid, exciting, funny and dark, and were one of the best comic book adaptations out there. Trepidation because it’s always been difficult to trump it three times in a row (save for Lord of the Rings, but face it - that’s just one big film split into three). Could Raimi pull another great film out of the bag? Well?

Well. Let’s get this out there: it was good. It was absolutely brimming with plot. First off there’s baddy one, the Sandman, a surprisingly subdued Thomas Haden Church whose molecular structure gets sort of, er, well he’s made out of sand basically. And you can’t really kill sand. Then there’s baddy two, the new Goblin who emerged at the end of the last film. James Franco’s brow furrows away as he harbours a mega grudge against his best mate, who he knows is a) Spider-Man, and b) responsible for his father’s death. Not a healthy grudge that one. And then there’s baddy three, a black alien parasite thingy that makes Spidey a little bit naughty and later spawns Venom (fan-boys/girls excited about that character coming into celluloid light.)

So three baddies, plus Spidey’s battle with his own ego, plus difficulties with girlfriend MJ, and it all could equal busy mess. We saw it with X-Men 3, when the deluge of new characters meant nobody had time to really develop. So here’s where it’s hats off to Raimi, because not only does he give all baddies chance to hog the limelight and have their own background, and fit in various relationship woes, AND fit in Peter Parker’s decline to meanness, he also manages to find the time for a dance number (more on that later…) At 140 minutes (ten less than Pirates) it’s certainly impressive that there’s never a sense of urgency. Aunt May can still deliver nice little speeches, Peter can get teary over his Uncle again, and Bruce Campbell can have an even longer cameo, which was brill.

The action sequences are once again astounding. Spidey falls in slow-mo, dodging round falling rubble. He gets thrown through buildings, punched out of moving vehicles, and does lots of other dead cool stuff. The effects on Sandman are flabbergasting, Spidey literally kicking his legs from under him at times. There are definitely wow-moments, but there’re genuinely funny moments too. And then there are some that teeter on the brink of silly (see afore-mentioned dance number). It’s brave of Raimi to try something so obscure, and amusing to watch Peter Parker’s bad side, complete with evil hair-do etcetera. But the silliness stretched a little too long at times, making my enjoyment turn into a bit of bafflement. There’s also a healthy spread of fight scenes, but not one that really shines out as the new, never-been-done one. The effects are outstanding, but we’ve seen many building-fights before. There’s no equivalent Spidey 2 train chase here.

Spider-Man 3 is a solid, exciting and smart start to the summer blockbuster season. During the middle of the film I was fully engaged, fully on the edge of my seat, and my internal CF scale reached a 5 in places. But with a little too much of the silly, and a lacking of real wow-factor for the finale, the scale slipped down to the still-impressive CF3. Good film - but leave it at a trilogy, please. There isn’t much more you can do with this franchise, save ruin it.

Friday, May 04, 2007

2nd May 07 - This Is England

The critics were clambering over themselves to praise this one, and though I was eager to see what all the fuss was about, there was also a sense of trepidation. British films seem to fall into two categories. Either painting England as a bright, cosmopolitan London street filled with quirky people who say ‘bugger’ and fall in love within twenty seconds. Or they’re grimmer than the Grimm Brothers. A story about skinheads in the 80s made me suspect this would be grim-central. I was preparing myself for a rough (shaven-headed) ride. This is England, after all.

The film centres on twelve year-old Shaun, who’s lost his daddy in the Falklands War and finds unlikely camaraderie with a bunch of brace-wearing, doc-martin laden skin heads. But it’s not as nasty as it seems. Far from it, in fact. This bunch, lead by the charismatic Woody, are nice, energetic guys who like to hang out. That’s all. They take Shaun under their wing, go to a few house parties, chill out in the local café. It looks like great fun. But then big skinhead Combo comes home from prison with some interesting ideas about sending the non-British “back home”. He likes angry, threatening fun. Oh dear…

Yet despite the grotty 80s setting and questionable nature of many of the characters, This is England is at times warm, funny and engrossing. Dialogue flows naturally from an utterly likeable cast, drawing humour from the slightest inflection or gesture. Thomas Turgoose, who was thirteen at the time of filming, is a cracking little actor, and he carries the weight of the film with ease. For much of the first half I watched with a smile on my face at the good, honest entertainment beaming back at me.

But don’t get me wrong. This is England definitely packs a punch - actually, more like a head-butt to the face. There’s a distinct lack of violence throughout the majority of the film, but under all the fun and laughs of Woody and co is the underlying fear. As Combo makes his way on to screen, that fear becomes threatening. And rather than rely only on the nasty side of things, director and writer Shane Meadows goes for the heart strings too. Watching young Shaun whimper about his father yanks at the heart strings - like The Lion King, but with skinheads.

Wrap up the fun, fear and emotion of the basic plot and characters and you’ve got a strong film. Add in the blindingly obvious issues that resonate with every single thing happening today, and you‘ve got a film with mega weight. People dying in unnecessary war, unrest in the populace, enigmatic leaders bringing about extremist groups. It’s a tad depressing that we’ve changed the branding but haven’t actually moved very far in the last twenty years. Meadows uses a tight film to show us This is indeed England. Buggering hell.

A powerful film that’ll leave you shaken, but with laughter to at least soften the blow, This is England clocks up a mighty CF4. Watch it.